It was all circumstantial evidence, this cold case from three years ago. The matter had been set aside and apparently forgotten. The victim was an illegal alien, the alleged perp a black man. There was a Jezebel, too, and the whole of it another reminder that Ukiah isn't country anymore.
Given the liberal givens of Mendocino County, it looked like a slam-dunk acquittal for Public Defender Linda Thompson and the man she was defending, James Perkins.
But Ms. Thompson, justly famed for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and, as always emotionally tone deaf, sneered at the People's evidence, blind to the baleful effect she has on juries.
Thompson could parlay Snow White into life without.
This jury found Mr. Perkins guilty of assaulting a Mr. Juan Gonzales and causing him great bodily harm.
Sure, there are lots of people who think Mexicans who enter the county illegally deserve whatever happens to them. Mario Guzman, fortunately, doesn't think like that, and the guy is a model of persistence.
Formerly of the Ukiah Police Department, Guzman is now an investigator for the District Attorney. He found the neglected Gonzales case and followed up on it. Guzman found that someone from the County Courthouse had gone to the scene of the crime, the Regency Inn in Ukiah, and had come back with the only piece of physical evidence there was in the case, but it was the clincher.
Deputy DA Shannon Cox, the prosecutor, clearly defined circumstantial evidence for the jury, explaining that they could legally convict someone with it. Usually, when it comes to explaining circumstantial evidence to juries, lawyers and judges use the battered old L-School cliché about the guy who comes into the room wearing a wet raincoat so you can safely assume it’s raining out.
Cox offered a fresher example.
“I grew up in Santa Cruz,” she said. “And if I woke up in the morning and saw all these really gnarly sets [waves] coming in, and my neighbor was wearing his wetsuit and waxing his surfboard, I could safely assume he was probably going surfing. That is circumstantial evidence, ladies and gentlemen, and the circumstantial evidence in this case is overwhelming.”
Public Defender Thompson chortled derisively at Cox’s surfing analogy. The Wet Raincoat is probably enshrined at the PD's office which, under Thompson, is unlikely to be ever be mistaken for a nest of intellectuals. Thompson's sotto voce sarcasms always seem to delight her doomed clients, but jurors are visibly disapproving, and her clients always laugh prematurely.
Juan Gonzalez, through a Spanish language interpreter, told his sad story.
He’d gone to the Perkins Street Bar and Grill on November 10th of 2012 where an attractive woman, Veronica Moreno, asked Gonzalez to buy her a drink, which he cheerfully did. Soon they were out on the dance floor where Ms. Moreno suggested that she and her new but irresistable man friend get a motel room. The instant romance was moving at warp-speed. On the way to their love nest at the Regency Inn, Gonzales remembered Ms. Moreno texting someone. Gonzales paid for the room, although Ms. Moreno used her driver's license as identification for the motel register.
This crucial piece of physical evidence, the registration form bearing Veronica Moreno’s signature, was made to disappear by “someone from the Courthouse” nearly a year later when Investigator Guzman reopened the case and went looking for it. The clerk on duty that night, who wasn't the clerk who was almost always on duty at the unregal Regency also disappeared, leaving no forwarding address.
Moreno and Gonzales went to room number 124 and had no more than started to undress when someone started pounding on the door. Moreno opened the door to a very large black man who rushed into the room, grabbed the diminutive Gonzales and proceeded to convert Gonzales' face to bloody mush.
As it happened, the romantically hyperactive Ms. Moreno had — in October of that year — married a man that fit this description, James Perkins, who just happened to have been working as a bouncer at the Perkins Street Bar the same night his wife went off into the Ukiah night with Gonzales.
When Gonzales regained consciousness, he found himself out on the street by the Ukiah Gardens Café. All he had on were his pants and shoes. He was covered with blood and in considerable pain. He walked to his apartment on East Gobbi Street and, after ten days of being unable to eat, but still fearing he’d be deported, went to the clinic on Laws Avenue where he was x-rayed and told his jaw was broken in several places. He next went to a hospital in Oakland for surgery and was told that he must report to the police what had happened to him.
Considering his immigration status, Gonzales was reluctant to go to the police. However, he did as he was told, and Officer LaPonte, formerly of the Ukiah PD (who doesn’t speak Spanish) took the case. LaPonte had Gonzales write out a statement and that was the end of it. The statement — which LaPonte couldn’t read — was set aside, and life went on. The diligent Sergeant Guzman, who does speak and read Spanish, found Gonzales' statement and reopened the case.
“For whatever reason,” Guzman said, “LaPonte dropped the ball. I talked to him one day when he was going off shift, then I called the victim and had him come in and tell me what happened.”
“Did he give you a description of the suspect?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Did he describe the female, as well?”
“Yes, he did.”
“And did you know Veronica Moreno?”
“Yes, from previous experience. Both she and Mr. Perkins are well known to law enforcement and the Perkins Street Bar and Grill.”
“Was Ms. Moreno in a spousal relationship with Mr. Perkins?”
“They were married, yes, that was my understanding.”
“Would you describe their relationship as volatile?”
“Yes. Very much so.”
Sgt. Guzman put together a photo line-up — what’s called a six-pack — and showed it to Gonzales. Gonzales picked Perkins out of the line-up but said he couldn’t be 100% sure Perkins was the man who had attacked him.
A few days after the photo line-up, Ms. Moreno and Mr. Perkins again came to the attention of law enforcement when the fun couple's dispute had become so loud, wild and public that the cops were called to the Crush Restaurant to separate them.
The relentless Guzman, with Perkins in custody, called Gonzales to see if Gonzales could identify Perkins in person. This time Gonzales, an honest man, said he was about 70% percent certain Perkins was the man who'd almost beaten him to death.
Public Defender Thompson jumped on Gonzales' margin of uncertainty. You’d have thought Thompson had won the state lottery. She was floating on a cloud of gloat. Perkins smiled at the jury. Like his lawyer, Perkins thought he was in the clear. 70% wasn’t good enough, Thompson told the jury. Her client deserved the benefit of the doubt, and they “must, absolutely must, find him not guilty.”
Deputy DA Cox called a desk clerk from the Regency Inn, the Celeste Capeletti, an aggrieved person. Ms. Capaletti said she was the Inn's only employee, had been the only employee for a long, long time, that she did all the work, was underpaid, under appreciated but never made a mistake, not a single one, 100 percent sure of everything, never a doubt about it. Objectively, Ms. Capaletti was put upon, but how free of error she might be was in dispute.
But there was no receipt for that one particular registration on November 10th and 11th of 2012, although the computer-generated log, which Ms. Capaletti gets up at 3:30am every morning to do, no matter what, was 100% accurate, she could guarantee that.
Cox: “So you checked Ms. Moreno in?”
“Why, yes; it couldn’t have been anyone but me.”
Cox: “But if I were to check in at, say, 1:30 on Sunday morning, November 11th, the computer would show that I checked in on…”
Capaletti: “November 10th, that’s right.
Cox: “What happened to the receipt, the one with Ms. Moreno’s signature on it?”
Capaletti: “Well, I was gone that one day, you see, about a year-and-a-half or two years ago — and, well, you would think that I could be gone just one day and things wouldn’t fall apart — but yes, somebody from the Courthouse came and asked for it and the owner — he doesn’t speak English very good, you know, and it can be difficult to understand him, but I do, and, well, anyway, as I was saying, this person, somebody from the Courthouse came and asked for it and the owner, who was there that one day — and really doesn’t understand how things work, so I have to do all the paperwork — and he [the owner] must have given it to him, or her, or whoever it was, this person from the Courthouse.”
Cox: “But the log is accurate?”
Capaletti: “Absolutely. I did it myself, same as I do every morning at 3:30 every morning; it’s the first thing I do when my day begins. It’s not easy, I tell you, but I get up and do it.”
Thompson: “Can you tell from the computer-generated log if one person or two checked in?”
Capaletti: “I could not tell from this document, no.”
Thompson (gleefully): “That’s all I have, nothing further.”
Prosecutor Cox: “Do you remember Sgt. Guzman coming to talk to you back in 2013?”
Capaletti: “Oh, yes. I remember Sgt. Guzman very well, very well, indeed. In fact, I never forget a face.”
Cox: “So if you told Sgt. Guzman that someone else checked Moreno in, that would be a mistake?”
Capaletti: “A mistake, yes, but it was somebody else’s mistake, not mine.”
Judge Behnke: “You may step down, Ms. Capaletti. And I just want you to know that I will never again complain about my hours,” the judge joked about his own calendar.
At this point in the trial, about midweek, Ms. Thompson was confident about her prospects for an acquittal. She sat sprawled in her chair smiling, impatiently drumming her nails on the defense table, ready to cut the cake and pop the champagne. The victim, Juan Gonzales, couldn’t positively ID her client, there was no proof — other than the word of an illegal alien — that Ms. Moreno had checked into the Regency Inn — and if she had, there was no proof Mr. Gonzales was with her. And what did it matter, anyway? There was no proof her client, Mr. Perkins, went there that night.
But prosecutor Cox had another witness, a technician from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Ms. Fuller, who monitors the GPS bracelet Mr. Perkins, a parolee, was wearing at the time Gonzales was assaulted. It’s called a VeriTrax and it sends a signal to a satellite every 60 seconds, which in turn puts a red dot on a Google map. The red dots form in clusters, showing the location of the person wearing the bracelet.
As the video played, we watched the cluster of red dots move from Burger King to the Perkins Street Grill, and then, after Moreno and Gonzales leave the Grill, the cluster of red dots leaves the bar and proceeds down State Street to the Regency Inn.
Public Defender Thompson suddenly looked much less confident. (Is it even conceivable she didn't know her guy was an ankle bracelet parolee? Er, yes. Not only conceivable but likely.)
Ms. Fuller explained that there was a 50-foot margin of accuracy, and also a 59-second delay. After the beating, at the time of the beating, rather, the dots again leave the Regency Inn and move to the Express Mart on Gobbi, make a brief stop at a residence there, then return to the hot sheet Regency and remain there until check out time.
Thompson made much of these margins for error, insisting that her client hadn’t been placed at the Gonzales beat down beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the evidence was purely circumstantial, and the jury still had no choice but to acquit.
“There’s only one thing Ms. Cox and I agree on,” Thompson said. “And that’s that Mr. Gonzales suffered a broken jaw. We know that because we have the report from the hospital. Other than that there’s no evidence in this case.”
Cox, for her part, agreed that the evidence was circumstantial.
“But,” she said, “it’s overwhelming.”
The jury agreed.
And it’s a good thing, too. If Perkins had been acquitted after the VeriTrax video was played, it would mean the end of ankle bracelets, and people like Perkins and his lovely bride could sail on on a sea of endless mayhem.